Friday, January 02, 2015

Language and Genetics in the British Isles

The British Isles might be a good case to examine for the relationship between population genetics and languages.   In that context, I found this article in the popular press: Myths of British Ancestry, by Stephen Oppenheimer, Prospect Magazine, October 21, 2006.  No doubt science has advanced some more in the past eight years, but this might be a good starting point.

Notice that the Celtic languages are Indo-European and per this author they spread with agriculture, not with the horse. (Supposedly horses were being domesticated in the Eurasian steppes 6000-5500 years ago.)
Given the distribution of Celtic languages in southwest Europe, it is most likely that they were spread by a wave of agriculturalists who dispersed 7,000 years ago from Anatolia.... 
 Moreover, the conventional invasion & genocide theories are deprecated.

The other myth I was taught at school, one which persists to this day, is that the English are almost all descended from 5th-century invaders, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, from the Danish peninsula, who wiped out the indigenous Celtic population of England......

The genocidal view was generated, like the Celtic myth, by historians and archaeologists over the last 200 years. With the swing in academic fashion against “migrationism” (seeing the spread of cultural influence as dependent on significant migrations) over the past couple of decades, archaeologists are now downplaying this story, although it remains a strong underlying perspective in history books.

Some excerpts:

Yet there is no agreement among historians or archaeologists on the meaning of the words “Celtic” or “Anglo-Saxon.” What is more, new evidence from genetic analysis (see note below) indicates that the Anglo-Saxons and Celts, to the extent that they can be defined genetically, were both small immigrant minorities. Neither group had much more impact on the British Isles gene pool than the Vikings, the Normans or, indeed, immigrants of the past 50 years.

The genetic evidence shows that three quarters of our ancestors came to this corner of Europe as hunter-gatherers, between 15,000 and 7,500 years ago, after the melting of the ice caps but before the land broke away from the mainland and divided into islands. Our subsequent separation from Europe has preserved a genetic time capsule of southwestern Europe during the ice age, which we share most closely with the former ice-age refuge in the Basque country. The first settlers were unlikely to have spoken a Celtic language but possibly a tongue related to the unique Basque language.

Another wave of immigration arrived during the Neolithic period, when farming developed about 6,500 years ago. But the English still derive most of their current gene pool from the same early Basque source as the Irish, Welsh and Scots. These figures are at odds with the modern perceptions of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon ethnicity based on more recent invasions. There were many later invasions, as well as less violent immigrations, and each left a genetic signal, but no individual event contributed much more than 5 per cent to our modern genetic mix.
Celtic languages and the people who brought them probably first arrived during the Neolithic period. The regions we now regard as Celtic heartlands actually had less immigration from the continent during this time than England. Ireland, being to the west, has changed least since the hunter-gatherer period and received fewer subsequent migrants (about 12 per cent of the population) than anywhere else. Wales and Cornwall have received about 20 per cent, Scotland and its associated islands 30 per cent, while eastern and southern England, being nearer the continent, has received one third of its population from outside over the past 6,500 years.
Given the distribution of Celtic languages in southwest Europe, it is most likely that they were spread by a wave of agriculturalists who dispersed 7,000 years ago from Anatolia, travelling along the north coast of the Mediterranean to Italy, France, Spain and then up the Atlantic coast to the British Isles. 
The orthodox view is that the entire population of the British Isles, including England, was Celtic-speaking when Caesar invaded. But if that were the case, a modest Anglo-Saxon invasion is unlikely to have swept away all traces of Celtic language from the pre-existing population of England. Yet there are only half a dozen Celtic words in English, the rest being mainly Germanic, Norman or medieval Latin. One explanation is that England was not mainly Celtic-speaking before the Anglo-Saxons. Consider, for example, the near-total absence of Celtic inscriptions in England (outside Cornwall), although they are abundant in Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Brittany.
The common language referred to by Tacitus was probably not Celtic, but was similar to that spoken by the Belgae, who may have been a Germanic people, as implied by Caesar. In other words, a Germanic-type language could already have been indigenous to England at the time of the Roman invasion. In support of this inference, there is some recent lexical (vocabulary) evidence analysed by Cambridge geneticist Peter Forster and continental colleagues. They found that the date of the split between old English and continental Germanic languages goes much further back than the dark ages, and that English may have been a separate, fourth branch of the Germanic language before the Roman invasion.
A picture thus emerges of the dark-ages invasions of England and northeastern Britain as less like replacements than minority elite additions, akin to earlier and larger Neolithic intrusions from the same places. There were battles for dominance between chieftains, all of Germanic origin, each invader sharing much culturally with their newly conquered indigenous subjects.

In a follow-up article, Stephen Oppenheimer writes:  (excerpts)

This letter draws attention to an aspect of the evidence that I understate in my book, namely the near-absence of Celtic influence in modern English place names. Whereas there are a couple of examples of near-complete “language shift” with absence of borrowing from a previous aboriginal vocabulary, indigenous place names are in general more resistant to extinction. This can be seen in America and Australia, which retain a considerable number of indigenous place names. These two examples are interesting, not only because massive replacement and genocide took place, but also because Australian and American English retain far more aboriginal vocabulary than native English retains Celtic. England itself retains pre-Indo-European place and river names, but few Celtic names, and the English language has literally only a handful of Celtic words.
The fact that England is such a “Celtic desert” is a problem for linguists who believe that Anglo-Saxon triumphed in what had been a totally Celtic-speaking region, even given the gory stories of massacre. This problem is because the Angles and Saxons apparently carried out a much better job of language extinction than in Australia and America, where genocide and massive replacement are so well documented. The “overkill” problem is acknowledged by English place name authority Richard Coates in a recent article “Invisible Britons: the view from linguistics,” where he concludes either that the genocide was complete or that there were few Britons actually living in England to interact with the invaders: “I argue that there is no reason to believe large-scale survival of an indigenous population could so radically fail to leave linguistic traces.”
Rather than pause to question scholarly assumptions that England had been 100 per cent Celtic-speaking until the 5th-century invasions, Coates prefers to use the linguistic evidence to challenge the genetic evidence: “These are the questions that need to be answered by those who propose a massive contribution of Britons to the “English” gene-pool.”
I guess I would see it the other way around. While there is no reason to expect that language change, resulting from invasion, should necessarily be massively reflected in the genetic picture, there is every expectation that complete genocide predicted by linguists should be—if it really happened.

Q—Oppenheimer’s article shows the futility of letting scientists loose on purely historical questions, which are better tackled by historians, archaeologists and linguists. There is no essential connection between where your ancestors came from in the Neolithic period and what language you speak or how you behave culturally. In any case, statistically all of us are descended from everyone: allowing 25 years per generation, in the 62 generations since 450AD, we have had 4.6 x 1016 direct ancestors, more people than have ever existed, and so we must be related to everyone on earth many times over.
Martin Nichols

A—From your first sentence it seems you must long for the good old days when historians, archaeologists and linguists could speculate on European invasions by Indo-Aryans, Kurgan horsemen and Celts, free of troublesome biological evidence. If you read my article and book, you will realise that your second sentence contains my starting point or null hypothesis: that connections between culture and genes are likely to be tenuous and that individual cases where this is claimed have to be tested appropriately.
Stephen Oppenheimer